IMO Diary Part 1: training camp

Bit of introduction:

IMO (International  Maths Olympiad) is an international event hosted for pre-college students, it’s an annual event of 6 hard maths problems that required a lot of creativity to solve. The test is spread out over 2 days, each day with one paper, each paper consists of 3 questions and students are given 4.5 hours to solve them individually. Each participating country will send a team of 6, plus a leader and deputy leader. IMO 2018 (2nd of July-14 of July) took place in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

2nd of July

12:00 p.m.

This is the big day! I have no idea what awaits in the next magic two weeks, and l’m sure I’m gonna love it!

On the plane: nothing much happened, we did problems and discussed together, and I finished reading the handouts from the training camp. In general no one disturbed us.

We got to the hotel, where we would be training with the team from Trinidad and Tobago, Everyone’s exhausted, yet I didn’t fall asleep immediately, I was stuck in this half-dream-half-awake state in which that I have to satisfy 3 equations in order to be allowed to sleep…

3nd of July

Very long day of training! We had our training session in the hotel dining room, the glass window above turned the room into a real greenhouse, and we’re really toasting while doing the math problems. We had three sessions, one on Number Theory, one on combinatorics and one on geometry. I got really stuck on a geometric question at the end of the day, and at one point I thought I got a solution. During supper, I was on the process of writing it down when I realized the solution doesn’t work and that I assumed something is true. I got really frustrated, as you can imagine, and I really could not taste the food in my mouth… It was the most surreal supper I ever had, and I wasn’t be able to sleep that night!

4th of July

I GOT IT!

I lay in bed thinking about the math problem last night, and I thought I had an insight, so this morning when I woke up, the first thing I did is to scribble down my solution. I completely abandoned my method from yesterday, but it took me very little time to get it out once I was on the right track. I was so happy, but at the same time bewildered that this question could take me so long.

We went to the Babes-Bolyai university today to train where our team leader managed to get a room. We trained the entire day, and in the evening we went to the national botanic garden to relax. In this process, we had loads of fun, and we got to know the Trinidad and Tobago members really well. They were all super nice, and I found a surprising shared passion with one of the teammates in our love of singing Disney songs and practicing Spanish. We would burst into spontaneous songs and dances and acting in the middle of the street, which caused everybody to stay away from us in order to save their faces.

I heard that the friendship between the two countries dated back a long time ago, when one of the IMOs was held in South America. We have been in touch since, and often trained together year after year. I think this kind of connection is really touching, how people from different time zones could be connected by a single event.

5th of July

Training! It was intense but I like it. At the same time though, it just taught me that I have a super long way to go. Ego losses occur.

Also, a very mind-opening conversation occurred between me and my teammates. We talked about what subject we are going to study at university. A lot of people’s are, without a single slight trace of doubt, mathematics. I, however, was still wavering between physics and maths. My interest in physics was peaked by a brilliant teacher, who was a deeply philosophical person and connected his teaching of laws of refraction with the philosophy of life and scientific methods. I was fascinated with the idea of exploring and figuring out the true law of nature. I never really considered maths a possibility, because it had a reputation of being hard and I never thought of exploring it any further than school work.

They shone some unique light into the difference between science and maths.”They have completely different ways of thinking, science is external coherent, and maths is internally coherent.”

I asked what this meant, and they explained that in science, you observe something that happens, and develop a theory to interpret it. Hence external coherent, you wrap your system around your observations. In maths, however, you build up you theories from the most basic axioms, and you never, never for the world contradicts what you already have with what you are developing, unless there is a desperate incoherency which forces you to break the limits, like what happened when people started to question the Euclid fifth postulate and developed projective geometry.

I found this an acute angle of looking at the difference between science and maths. This triggered great mental conflicts in me, and causes me to consider: is maths maybe for me?

6th of July

As a break, we decided on embarking on a great journey to Cheile Turzii (at least, that’s what Google map told us where we were).

We had a trip across the valley, looking at the beautiful mountains and the pairs of butterflies on the meadows. We crossed a brook barefooted to avoid having to walk all the way to use the bridge, and met up with a friendly shepherd and his flock of sheep. This picturesque country scene made me fall in love with the country immediately.

It was a great excursion, not to mention our great picnic under the trees and Romanian traditional dessert while doing math in the shade on the hilltop. (and feeding the shepherd dog that was always hungry) Oh, that moment was such a colourful moment, one that I would never forget.

And just after we finished our lesson on spiral similarity, however, there came the sound of thunder. A large clot of grey cloud hang heavy across the sky, and seemed to be coming at us. The shepherd started herding the flock of sheep over the hill back home. Some of us were a bit worried while others were unconcerned and insisted that staying under the trees will protect us very well. While we were debating, thunder can be heard rumbling down the hill and the Irish team would not stand it any longer. We raced down the hill, just when raindrop started to fall. We found a restaurant at the foot of the hill, and took cover under an umbrella. The minute we got settled, the rain started splashing down, blurring all our vision and even angrily invading the space under the umbrella. The rain covered the world in a thin sheet of downpouring water. About 10 minutes later, we saw the people who decided to stay slowly walking across the hill soaked in rain, a bitter smile on their face… We couldn’t stop laughing!

Looking back, it was a great adventure but I had to thank my luck. To think, I had my passport in my bag and everything. If that got soaked…

7th of July

We had a review session in the morning, we trained in a dark underground lobby, and because there weren’t any chairs everybody sat on bean bags, REALLY comfy!

We went over what different types of questions could come up in different topics of olympiad maths, and what to do to meet the different challenges. The session is really structured and helpful. Next, we headed to our official hotels where we will be staying with the other teams. Our two teams arrived a week early because we would like to train together for a week before the actual contest starts, but actually, most of the countries arrive on this day. Turned out, though, all the countries are spread out across 4 different hotels, and our team and the Trinidad and Tobago team were separated cruelly. This was a pity, given that a huge part of IMO is socializing, and now we won’t get the opportunity to talk to a lot of other teams.

The best part, though, was the goody bag! A grey, neat and smart looking backpack that was stuffed full with stuff, two T-shirts, one of which have the “dance of the functions” on it (Which I LOVE! I want to dance every time I see someone wearing it) an earphone, a water bottle, a tray (yes, a small breakfast tray, to my great bewilderment…we still haven’t figured out what is the meaning the committee is trying to convey) and the Mascot, a cute little teddy bear with a small head and big body called ”MIMO”. We tried out the games room, which is a common feature of IMO, a room in which people can play games and play chess and relax and socialize. However, this year’s game room only had a handful of people in it, and they are from the US and Canadian team, so after 5 minutes mt teammate Anna and I went back to our room, feeling a bit intimidated (after all, these are IMO gold-medalists!). The boys stayed, though, and we were very curious about their result in their fearless contest against those amazing mathematical minds.

8th of July

The boys told us what was the result of yesterday. They did lose a few rounds of chess, but in the end they developed a strong bond with the New Zealand team by a game of Monopoly, which, as it turned out, later became a bit chaotic and no one knows who is the winner.

Today was the opening ceremony, so we changed into fancy clothes and went to the big arena which will be our exam room the very next day.

We looked around the find the Trinidad and Tobago team and found them seated very much to the back. We had like an hour before the actual thing starts, so we started chatting around. I chatted with the girl sitting in front of me who was from Iraq. This was her first year here and will be her last as she was in her final year in highschool. She was really nice and we exchanged contact numbers took a selfie together.

I was on the edge of my seat trying to get up and chat with the Chinese team. I come from China, and of course, I have long heard of maths olympiad team in China which held endless mystery to me. I was even strangely nervous when I saw them seated not too far from us. “Go!” my teammates urged me, and after hesitating a while, I went over to say hi.

They were a bit shocked when I approached and greeted them in Chinese. The two teachers started to chat with me while the 6 team members eyed me curiously at a distance. I felt a bit guilty, actually, to think that back in China I guess I won’t even be able to get in city-level selection, yet here I am, standing together with the Chinese team who have struggled for so long and trained for years to be here.

The teacher discussed the difference between western and Chinese education systems with me, and he thought that the western education system indeed holds many possibilities for students to explore their full possibilities. Like me, for example, never in the world will I go and poke around the realm of mathematics if I were in China. Whereas here, I was already starting to think of choosing maths as my future field of study. This is stuning change that I could never see coming.

Anyways back to the Chinese team. The 6 teammates looked the kind of quiet student you might think you could find anywhere in your district, but wait until you hear their history… In the 6 of them, 3 are accepted into Tsinghua University, 3 are accepted into Beijing University, the top universities of China! And by “accepted”, it was not the ordinary admission, it was the type that guarantees the university entrance, no exam results needed (ok, well, you’ll have to pass, but you really don’t need to bother about it much).

While we were doing all these socialising, the team leaders of different countries are sharing the problem sets from their countries. Turned out, this is a “ritual of exchange”, if you will, between countries. Each country would bring a booklet of the problems in their country and share them around with other countries. An exchange of knowledge and resources.

The opening ceremony itself was not all that exciting, loads of speeches, and we tried in secret to do maths problems. The parade of countries was interesting, though, we had our ”three minutes of fame” as we walked on stage with our Irish flag.

After the ceremony, we started taking pictures with other countries, and we also got to walk around a little and socialize with other countries. I found a lot of friends from EGMO (European Girls Maths Olympiad). Friends from Ecuador, friends from Ukraine…

In the afternoon, we had the choice of going to the arena again to see our seatings for tomorrow. However, we preferred instead to go to a street food festival just next to the arena. Yum!

After dinner, we went to the supermarket to buy food. The test would be long and people would get hungry. It was always recommended to buy food that you like and would give you energy, as long as the food was not, according to IMO instructions 2018, crunchy and noisy.

858 thoughts on “IMO Diary Part 1: training camp”

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